Thursday, April 10, 2008

The "boat people" of Texas

More than 30 years ago, after the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees fled from that country. Thousands more fled from the Killing Fields of Cambodia, where a madman slaughtered millions, declared the “Year Zero” and sought to eliminate everything associated with modern civilization.

Many of the Vietnamese refugees fled on small, leaky boats. Some were attacked by pirates. Men were killed, women and girls were raped.

The refugees spent months, sometimes years, in overcrowded camps before finally being resettled around the world. While some had led middle-class, cosmopolitan lives in their home countries many more had not. For many, arriving in the United States was like landing on another planet.

American charities would help resettle the refugees, with many families moved to the same communities. And individual American families would “sponsor” a refugee.

And, as far as I know, no one – absolutely no one – was stupid enough to say that those women who were raped were “bad mothers” because they were unable to protect the children from the same fate.

All of this is brought to mind, of course, by the 419 children taken from an isolated compound in rural Texas run by a Mormon splinter group – along with 139 mothers who, when given a choice to stay behind with the men or go with the children, chose their children.

These families have lived in total isolation, under guard, with no knowledge of the outside world. Like the boat people, they’ve landed on another planet. And, if the allegations are true, the women and children have suffered in similar ways.

Unfortunately, these women and children are in the hands not of refugee resettlement agencies but of the Texas child protective services agency. All over the country, such agencies are much more about punishing “bad parents” than protecting children.

It is common, for example, to take children from mothers whose only crime was to have been beaten up by husbands or boyfriends. The women are accused of being bad mothers because they “allowed” the children to “witness domestic violence.”

It took a class-action lawsuit to stop this barbaric practice in New York City. (NCCPR’s Vice-President was co-counsel for plaintiffs). In a scathing, 182-page decision, a federal judge blasted the city child welfare agency for all the harm it was doing to children. He summarized testimony in which one expert after another said that while allowing children to witness domestic violence might be harmful, taking the children from the non-offending parent was far, far worse. One expert said it was “tantamount to pouring salt into an open wound.” (That section of the decision is excerpted on NCCPR’s website.)

In this case, the allegation might be that the mothers “allowed” the children themselves to be abused. But, if the charges in this case are true, that is no more true of these mothers than of those on those leaky boats fleeing Vietnam. If the charges are true, the women and the children were inmates in what amounted to a prison camp. They were allegedly imprisoned not only by force, but by fear – by tall tales told about what happens to women and children in the “outsiders world.”

If the children now are torn from their mothers, it will only make the children feel that they are somehow to blame for everything that happened. In addition, as an excellent child advocacy group in Texas, the Parent Guidance Center points out, it will prove to them that the men back in the compound at Eldorado were right about what “outsiders” do to children.

So the best thing that could happen now would be for Texas CPS to clear out. Let law enforcement sort out the truth of the allegations and, if those allegations are true, make arrests. And let agencies with experience in refugee resettlement take over dealing with the families, so the families can be treated as what they are – refugees – and so that these children don’t lose the only thing they have left – their mothers.